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2 February 2021

From the NS archive: Lenin and Churchill

19 June 1920: It is curious to observe how much these two statesmen of 20th-century Europe have in common.

By Anonymous

In June 1920 Vladimir Lenin published a “Letter to the British workers” in Pravda. He thanked them for sending a “delegation” to Russia, an “acquaintance”, he wrote, that “will inevitably accelerate the collapse of capitalism throughout the world”. War secretary and future prime minister Winston Churchill responded to Lenin’s letter in a series of columns in the Evening News. In this New Statesman article, an anonymous writer compared the two figures: “Both care more for power than for money; both are professed democrats who at bottom have not the least respect for democracy; and both, without a trace of personal brutality, act always on the assumption that human life is of very small account beside the realisation of their own aims and ideas.” Lenin’s letter should not put fear into the British people, they wrote, because his understanding of the Bolshevik ideals at play in Britain were unfounded. Anyway, “Proletarian England is the home of revolutionary theory; it has nothing to learn in that direction from a Lenin.”

***

We wonder whether Lenin hates Mr Churchill as much as Mr Churchill hates Lenin? It is quite possible. There is very little to choose in point of single-minded virulence between Lenin’s recent letter to the workmen of Great Britain and Mr Churchill’s reply thereto through the columns of the Evening News.

It is curious, indeed”, to observe how much these two statesmen of 20th-century Europe have in common. They both possess a certain Napoleonic outlook upon the petty affairs of Europe. They both are adventurous and believe in force, and they both have the power of producing a very marked impression upon those with whom they come in contact for the first time. In their different ways they are visionaries and romantics, to whom what most men think is grey appears as either plain black or plain white.

Lenin, as Mr Lansbury tells us, is an atheist who strongly resents being taken for a mere agnostic. Mr Churchill’s religion is an equally uncompromising diabology with the Bolshevik as devil. Both care more for power than for money; both are professed democrats who at bottom have not the least respect for democracy; and both, without a trace of personal brutality, act always on the assumption that human life is of very small account beside the realisation of their own aims and ideas. Neither, if he had been on the spot, would have countenanced for an instant the cruelties perpetrated by Denikin’s troops on the one side or by Red Guards on the other; but neither, we may safely assume, permitted himself to be worried for an instant by the thought that such things had occurred.

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Both, again, are intellectual fishwives, who believe in the real efficacy of reiterated abuse and are themselves past masters of resourceful vituperation; and both, in certain directions, are as invincibly ignorant as they are always clever and industrious. As the British Labour delegation seem to have discovered, it is as great a waste of time to attempt to talk to Lenin about England as it is to attempt to talk to Mr Churchill about Russia. Both believe that the most drastic remedies offer not merely the best but the only solution, “If you want liberty, says Lenin, “you must use violence and crush the bourgeois.” Mr Churchill heartily endorses the first half of the exhortation but ends it with “crush the Bolsheviks”. Neither realises that he is demanding the moon, or can conceive that any other policy is even worth talking about.

We will not pursue this Plutarchian parallel, since we might easily fill columns with such resemblances – before we come to the differences. Undoubtedly, the most poignant difference is that fate has been kinder to one than to the other. Lenin has had a unique chance of showing what a second-rate intellect combined with supreme self-confidence and indomitable courage and persistence can achieve, and whether he dies by violence tomorrow or quietly in his bed 30 or 40 years hence his name will be remembered for thousands of years. He has, besides, no need to supplement his income by writing articles for the evening newspapers.

Lenin’ s letter to the British proletariat seems to have produced a most salutary revulsion of feeling in all sorts of quarters. It has often been remarked, and, indeed, is now commonly accepted, that the Soviet Government owes its position to its enemies, Mr Churchill’s policy has certainly done far more than a decade of Bolshevist propaganda could have effected to strengthen Bolshevism both inside and outside Russia.

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But we do not think that Mr Churchill has ever struck for Bolshevism in Russia a blow so shrewd and weighty as Lenin by his epistle to the English has dealt to Bolshevism in England. If it would be wise for anti-Bolshevists to confiscate Mr Churchill’s sword, it would be certainly wiser still for pro-Bolshevists to confiscate Lenin’s pen. Regarded as an endeavour to influence working-class opinion in this country, this letter of his is an almost incredibly inept piece of work. Its crude violence, its tone of contemptuous condescension, its doctrinaire shibboleths, its wholesale condemnation of British labour leaders as corrupt traitors to their class, the utter absence of any constructive spirit or of any touch of idealism, the ignorance and gross credulity displayed in its references to conditions in this country, in short, nearly every one of its features, might have been expressly designed by some subtle enemy to discredit its writer, in the sight not only of the ordinary British working man but even of those enthusiastic “left-wingers” of ours who have hitherto been proud to dub themselves “Bolsheviks”.

Sympathy with the Bolsheviks in their struggles against counter-revolutionaries and Poles has been very deep and very widespread throughout even the right wing of the British Labour movement. It has survived any number of “atrocity” stories; indeed, it has fed and thriven on them since they have been generally regarded as lies put about to discredit the already hard-pressed Russian proletariat. But here is an undeniably authentic piece of evidence – Lenin’s own words, borne direct to England from Moscow by a socialist labour leader, and lo! they are the familiar words of the hack orator of every street corner. Can sympathy survive such a shock? We doubt it – unless Mr Churchill will oblige with a new anti-Bolshevik war. More than 12 months ago we suggested in these columns that the best way of combating Bolshevism in Great Britain would be to invite a large number of propagandists trained in Moscow to visit these shores. Lenin’s letter surely justifies our view.

It would, however, we believe, be a considerable mistake to assume that Lenin is really so narrow and foolish a person as his letter makes him appear. It is simply that he knows no more about England than Mr Churchill – or the gentleman who writes the leading articles on Russian affairs in the Times – knows about Russia. His blunders are the outcome not of stupidity so much as of an egotistical error of judgment. He has attempted to write down to an audience of which he knows nothing. He fancies that he can impress them by the same sort of consciously crude phraseology which he has found to be effective with the Russian working man. He has not grasped the difference between a Labour movement that is a decade old and a Labour movement that is a century old.

One or two of his colleagues, perhaps Tchicherin, certainly Litvinoff, understand this very well, but Lenin does not listen to them. He appears honestly to believe that both England and France must be he within sight, if not on the verge, of revolution, and he is encouraged in this belief by the brilliantly clever Radek and others of his colleagues who have never been further west than Berlin. It is the blind spot of an otherwise intelligent and able man. He does not understand that phrases about “the revolutionary struggle of the proletariat” and the treacherous influence of a black coat, which in one country may move the working class with all the inspiration of a new gospel, are to the wage-earners of another country merely the clichés of which their grandfathers grew tired. Proletarian England is the home of revolutionary theory; it has nothing to learn in that direction from a Lenin. It might welcome hints – if he had any to offer – on constructive practice; but from him it will never accept merely destructive doctrines. They are “coals to Newcastle” – to a Newcastle that has learnt to use electric stoves.

On the whole, however, we believe that nothing better could have happened than the composition and publication of this letter – not so much because of its effect upon pro-Bolshevists, or potential pro-Bolshevists, as because of its effect upon the more violent sort of anti-Bolshevists. In the latter quarter it has already done a great deal to transform a morbid and altogether unreasonable terror into a far more healthy – though possibly exaggerated – contempt. Even Mr Churchill, judging by his Evening News article, is beginning almost to despise the Bolsheviks, and the Times since last week seems to have less fear of the deadly machinations of a man who could pen such an effusion. It is beginning to be realised that Europe may be safe, after all, even if Lenin be neither dead nor at St Helena. The bane of Western statesmanship during the past 12 months has been the mixture of loathing and panic-stricken respect with which the Leninist regime has been so widely regarded. If the element of panic can be eliminated – for panic is always the mother of impotence and folly and worse panic – common sense may return. Lenin may have done that much for us. At any rate, we hope so.

Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)